wellington: the wind, the weather, the wonder.

wind (noun):

1 : a natural movement of air of any velocity; especially : the earth’s air or the gas surrounding a planet in natural motion horizontally

2 a : a destructive force or influence

2 b : a force or agency that carries along or influences

It was an overcast Saturday afternoon in Wellington, rain imminent, plans to take a harbor ferry on my one day off thwarted yet again by the weather. And so I turned to the city to entertain me, taking to the streets, to a coffeeshop, to bookstores and back streets where I walked and thought about this place itself. Down Lambton Quay, I suddenly came across the sounds of an instrument I’d never seen before. A Chinese man sat on the ground in the alcove of a closed-down shop, a two-stringed creation with a long neck and a small body on his lap, one hand holding a bow, the other holding down the strings. An American woman – it didn’t take long to hear her accent – walked up with her young Chinese daughter and the man changed quickly to a rousing rendition of “Jingle Bells.”

I listened as she explained to her daughter that the instrument is an erhu, a stringed instrument sometimes known as the “Chinese violin.” “Maybe the man can play some of the songs you know, Maria.” I thought what a stroke of luck, as just that morning I’d begun to think more critically about Wellington and just what it was that drew me here. And after nine months of exploring the small towns of New Zealand, I knew I was ready again for the city life. I love looking up from the street to have your view eclipsed by twenty-story buildings. I am drawn to places with traffic – so long as I’m walking – and emergency sirens in the distance because it’s as if I know I am in a place where people want to be and where things happen. It’s a place where government officials and cultural icons gather, where businessmen and buskers alike flood the street. Here, in the melancholy sounds of the erhu, was everything I’d come to Wellington for.

Because it’s a question I’m asked often, Why Wellington?, by native Wellingtonians and tourists alike. Or as my oft-quoted friend in Christchurch asked, taking the question even further, why Wellington…in the summer of all times?

“You’re back? And you’re in… … Wellington? That last bit makes about as much sense as spending summer in … Chicago or Nova Scotia. Do you… … hate good weather or something? You spend a winter in England. You then come to Christchurch to spend a winter here. And when you finally get to enjoy the spoils of staying in a temperate environment for sustained period – you chose Wellington!?!

I guess if you’ve done Queenstown, it’s kind of a hyped up version of Nelson. So to that extent, Wellington is certainly ‘another’ type of city. But seriously?

Apparently Chicago, Cape Town and Wellington are the three windiest cities on the planet. I can understand Cape Town, hot continent, coastal city on edge of southern ocean. Makes sense. And Wellington has winds whipping through the Cook Strait, and winds driving up the east coast of the South Island, and colliding at Wellington. So I understand why it’s windy there – don’t quite get why Chicago should be windy at all. Especially given the number of other cities around the edge of Michigan or other lakes.”

He has a point. The wind in Wellington is as inescapable as the rain in London or the humidity in Bangkok. There’s not a day at Vercelli’s when a customer doesn’t bring up the wind. “When does the wind stop?” I’m asked, or I’ll overhear another customer saying, “It’s too windy for hairstyles,” and I couldn’t agree more. There are days when it’s not so much walking down the sidewalk as it is letting the wind move you. I was talking to a friend of a friend, an English girl named Jo, and she told me of a disastrous night out when she chose to wear a full-length maxi dress. She related the situation in which the dress itself became more a sail, the wind catching it and propelling her down the street. “Even though I was the size of a whale, it was great, I hardly had to walk myself.”

I, too, often find myself sailing. Or if the wind’s coming from the front, rather than behind, I’m more of an NFL quarterback, tucking my purse into one arm like a football and extending my other arm in front of me into imaginary linemen, pushing my way towards my destination. Living in Wellington is like living in a wind tunnel and I’m tempted to blame any late arrivals to work on the wind as it certainly does slow you down. While in Queenstown, once I’d decided to move north for the summer, customers would ask, Where next?, but as soon as I’d told them Wellington, the first thing out of their mouths always, without fail, had to do with the wind. And I found myself frustrated – there has to be something more to this city than the wind…right? I came to this city expecting wind, but I wanted more, too.

The Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand cites that “on 173 days a year, New Zealand’s breezy capital is buffeted by winds of over 60 km an hour. Gusts regularly reach 140 km an hour. The city’s strongest winds were an incredible 248 km an hour, at Hawkins Hill on 6 November 1959 and 4 July 1962.” On one particularly windy night, I had a browser open on the New Zealand MetService website and would occasionally refresh the page to see what the latest wind guest had measured in at. The highest reading I saw was 117 km/hour, although MetService warnings predicted gusts of 120-130 kph. Curious to see how this fared against nearly my only other experience with such winds – hurricanes – I looked up the Beaufort Wind Force Scale, developed by Sir Francis Beaufort in 1806 to help standardize observations of the weather. My 117 kph reading was a mere one kilometer away from being classed hurricane-force, falling instead under “violent storm.” I was two kilometers away from being classified as a Category 1 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, created in 1969 to classify such tropical storms and systems. So that explains why it felt as if my windows were about to be blown out.

And it’s all because of Wellington’s precarious position on the Cook Strait, with the weather systems from both islands colliding together. It also happens to be located in the roaring forties latitudes, already renowned for the strength of their winds, having less landmass to slow them down. If there were ever a recipe for disaster, this is it.

Yet again, while I knew about the wind, another part of me was innocently ignorant of the utter absence of summer in Wellington. I arrived in the city only to realize I’d made a grave mistake by sending home, amongst other winter items such as boots and sweaters, my hooded Kathmandu puffer jacket. While waiting for a new flatmate to meet me on the street, I looked around in horror to see people wearing coats, sweaters, tights, and shoes, while I myself stood like an uninformed immigrant in my Havaianas flip-flops. This is no summer. This is spring mixed with wintry days and days just warm enough to think summer might be just around the corner. I say this with a sort of pride, as if deserving some kind of medal of honor, that I currently reside in Wellington with neither an umbrella nor a single hooded item in my wardrobe. The Wellington tourism website hopefully holds to its claim that “Wellington has more sunshine hours than London,” but somehow that doesn’t assuage my disappointment – maybe because after living in London, I know that’s not the hardest statistic to beat. 

At Vercelli’s, each of the servers typically has one day off a week. My friend Aimee’s falls on a Sunday and while sitting outside on our lunch break one unusually warm day, she expressed the toll that worrying about the weather was starting to take on her. “Once it’s Wednesday or Thursday, it’s all I can think about. I know, I just know, it’s going to rain on my day off.” I recently came across a media release from the National Climate Centre at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. Although dated August of 2008, it lends some important insight into Aimee’s situation: “Half the Sundays in Wellington this year have been rain days. Thursdays have been the driest days this year…Sundays and Mondays are the wettest days this year. Since the start of May at least half of the days have been rain days in Wellington – where more than 1mm of rain has fallen.” Perhaps it’s not even that the weather is so consistently bad – which it is, of course – but that it consistently fails to perform on the days on which we need its cooperation so badly.

So with the wicked wind and weather, you have to ask why people chose to settle here in the first place and, moreover, why they’ve stayed. There must be something, surely, that makes up for the total shambles the weather makes of your attempts at a social life.

What Wellington has to offer is its status as a national capital city, the southernmost of its kind, in fact, as well as the most remote – furthest from any other capital in the world. Like Washington, D.C. back home, Wellington may not be the city with the biggest population in the country, nor one with the flashest skyline, but it has an air about it, or as my German friend Elise remarked on her first day in the city, “official vibes” can be felt, especially at the sight of all the business suits after our time in the backpacking and sunbathing haven of Nelson. Although founded in 1840, it wasn’t until 1865 that Wellington took over Auckland as the capital, with Parliament meeting officially for the first time in the city on July 26, 1865. Its location on the harbor and its closer proximity to the South Island, where there were concerns a separate colony might form, made Wellington a more ideal choice.

A word you’ll hear often being used to describe Wellington is compact. Its unique position between the harbor and the hills means that the city isn’t given as much room to grow as it might’ve in the Canterbury plains. But what I’ve found thus far is that you can’t look at Wellington as a big city in terms of numbers. Although the population of the Wellington Region is about 450,000, that of those actually residing in the inner city is a mere 9,294, having doubled from 4,440 between 1996 and 2006. Compare that to Inner London, where the population was nearly three million in 2005, or to the more than 1.5 million living in Manhattan alone.

But I’ve found that if you turn your back to the suburbs, concentrating only on the few “skyscrapers” that do fill your line of vision, it’s there, you’ll see, where your city lies. Even the view from the top of the Botanic Gardens reveals how truly compact Wellington is, yet there are moments on the streets when I feel very much as if I’m in a big city, something I tried again and again to achieve in Christchurch yet never quite felt. Despite the discrepancy in numbers – with Wellington City’s population of 180,000 falling far short of Christchurch’s 380,000 – Wellington seems far bigger to me, at least in the small space it does inhabit. Christchurch will forever seem to me the city of suburbs, its city center graced by the Avon River, the cathedral and willow trees, yet lacking any metropolitan magic, any buzz. Wellington is about quality, not quantity, showing me that that sometimes a city isn’t so much about the arithmetic as it is the atmosphere.

Wellington’s tourism website goes on to describe it as more than just the center of politics, it’s the cultural capital of the country as well, with such troupes as the Royal New Zealand Ballet and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra based in the city. Every year, the NZ International Arts Festival is held in Wellington, bringing together artists and groups from the world over. The 2010 festival will be no different, featuring plays and shows originally from such countries as France, Poland, Latvia, Ireland, Sweden, Germany and Canada. Writers and Readers Week, Chamber Music Weekend, free art talks and exhibitions – just a few of the chances to experience not only the best of New Zealand’s artistic output, but a sampling of the music, art, and theater hailing from the global stage.

So while life at Vercelli’s defines more and more of my life in Wellington, keeping me busy and keeping me from getting to partake in the city’s cultural offerings, I can still envision a life for myself here. I can imagine having a job that takes up less of my time, giving me a chance to go out with friends, catch the symphony’s weekend performance and visit the new art exhibit. If I was suddenly told I couldn’t leave the country and would be forced to live out the rest of my days in New Zealand, Wellington is where I’d choose to settle down. Everything from the waterfront location to the café culture draws me in, most especially my flat, which came about through yet another crazy Kiwi connection.

Towards the end of October, I took a bus from Queenstown to Christchurch, where I spent the weekend before flying out to Thailand on a Monday. As I visited and caught up with friends from Christchurch, I spoke to one of my friend’s mothers who, upon me telling her where I’d be spending the summer, immediately told me her other son attends university in Wellington. Although her initial texts to him had mainly to do with just arranging for me to meet him, she soon informed me he actually had a room open in his flat for the summer.

It’s safe to say I knew nothing about the place when I told her I’d take it. All I knew is that I wanted to show up in the city with at least accommodation sorted. But when I finally had a chance to go online and look up the location, I almost didn’t trust Google Maps. She’d told me it was central, but little did I realize “central” meant a two-minute walk from Te Papa Museum of New Zealand and right at the intersection of Courteney Place and Cuba Street, two of the most popular streets in the city, home to all the good bars, restaurants, and cafés. Again, her son Jordan sent me pictures of the flat, but it wasn’t until seeing it for the first time in person that I understood how perfect of a flat it was for me. I’ve always dreamed of living in an urban, industrial-style flat, with high ceilings, exposed wiring and pipework, and large, spacious windows. It was the kind of place I was looking for in Christchurch at first, before I came to see it didn’t really exist – no one lives in central Christchurch, you live in the suburbs.

But here on the third floor of a five-floor building, up an elevator, lay everything I’d ever wanted. Four flatmates, three guys with a great sense of humor, one girl with a great sense of style and a wardrobe I envy, and my own room. The flat itself has been furnished and decorated in exactly the style I would have chosen, with an old-fashioned typewriter and a glass chess set displayed in the lounge and even – get this – a piano. Heaven. And I have a desk, which sounds like such a minor detail, but a piece of furniture I haven’t had since I left university. There isn’t much to the desk itself, but it’s long, holds all my books, and sits right beneath a massive window that reaches up to the ceiling and looks out onto the city. It seemed almost like a little sign, a symbol that a lot of writing was going to take place here.

There’s not much that’s not to love about Wellington. I’m still learning though, and that process of discovery just goes to show it’s not as easy to get to know a city as it is a small town. It didn’t take long to feel like I’d pegged down Queenstown, but here in Wellington, in a bigger city, life doesn’t always keep to tidy boxes of definition. I walked out of a bookshop my first day off in Wellington only to find a massive march for climate change parading down the street, banners waving in the air. Chants of “What do we want?” “Forty percent!” “When do we want it?” “NOW!” resounded through the crowds of shoppers, referring to Desmond Tutu’s call for a 40% reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2020.

As I walk along Cuba Street, I look for the woman with a sock puppet who often says hello in a high-pitched ventriloquist’s voice, and the balloon man who makes inflatable creations while sporting a rainbow-colored balloon hat of his own. Even from my room, I can just hear the strains of bagpipes, which I know come from a man wearing a kilt who plays daily in various locations throughout the city. Like the erhu I discovered on Lambton Quay, these are the people who represent this city for me. This is the city life.

So Why Wellington? you ask? Wellington was a move that made sense. I began my time in New Zealand in Christchurch largely because of my friend Adam from London. Knowing next to nothing about the country, it later seemed fitting I’d started out in the first European settlement. From the steady if quiet life of Christchurch to the excitement and exhilaration of Queenstown I now come to Wellington, finding in the capital a much-needed balance between my two South Island habitations.

They say, “You can’t beat Wellington on a good day,” and though I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve been told this phrase, to the point where I’m able to predict they’re about to say it, a lot of truth lies in the statement. If you paraphrase one of the definitions of wind, it’s “a force that influences,” and there’s no denying that – from what you wear to where you go on the weekend, the wind has its way. But Wellington is itself such a force, a city that carries you along to new cultural horizons and official connections. There’s something to the city – even with the wind, even with the weather being not quite the summer I’d imagined, it’s all worth putting up with.

The wonder’s worth the wind.


1 Comment

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One response to “wellington: the wind, the weather, the wonder.

  1. The wonder is worth the wind. Isn’t that true with every locale? It seems that way to me, anyway. For me, it seems I fall in love with every place I visit and put up with the good and bad. Tuscany’s “no screens on the windows” policy. Switzerland — well, can’t think of one bad thing. Bangkok’s humidity and strange smells. Shall I go on? Falling in love with a locale is much like falling in love with a person — you take the good, the bad and the ugly — each making the relationship real and rewarding.

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